The Story of Eric Harwood

Eric Harwood, a 47-year-old man from Henderson, Nevada, has embarked upon a somewhat quixotic quest to draw attention to his desperate plight. Due to a serious physical disability, Harwood was discharged from his locksmithing job of 15 years in August and has been battling with the Social Security Administration to receive disability insurance ever since. As the battle dragged on, Harwood scrambled to keep his life afloat. He sold many of his possessions through yard sales and the internet. He set up a GoFundMe page and asked friends and family to donate. And he, embarrassingly, enrolled in Food Stamps, Medicaid, and LIHEAP. These stop-gap strategies have reached their end, however. In early February, if something doesn’t change, he will be booted from the house he rents, and he and his wife will be forced to move in with family in Arizona.

I initially stumbled upon Harwood on Twitter. The Social Security Administration had tweeted about disability insurance, and Harwood responded with a YouTube video claiming that the SSA was jerking him around.

I watched the video and then watched three others that he had also posted to his account (1, 2, 3). All posted in the last few weeks, the videos compellingly document Harwood’s increasing frustration and desperation. Also interesting in the videos are Harwood’s politics. He is disgusted by the fact that United States has so many homeless veterans, struggling seniors, and needy children. And he is especially disgusted that these people’s needs are being unmet while the US provides aid to refugees, immigrants, and countries abroad. According to Harwood, we need to ensure economic security for our own first and then worry about everyone else.

Perhaps unknown to him, Harwood finds himself at the center of so many current debates in the United States. He is trying (and so far failing) to receive disability insurance at a time when many conservatives are trying to scale back the program, which they believe is overenrolled and abused. He is a working-class, middle-aged white man, a group whose mortality has startlingly increased in the last few decades, primarily because of suicide and substance abuse. And he is a supporter of Trump and Cruz, two outsiders who have so far shocked the political establishment by grabbing the majority of the Republican electorate in poll after poll.

After seeing his videos, I reached out to Harwood by email and asked him if he would be willing to talk to me about his situation over the phone. He obliged and what follows is his story, as told by him.

Harwood was born in 1968 and was raised in the foster system. In 1984, at age 16, he started working, initially in whatever odd job he could get. By age 19, he had secured a job in a plastics factory, working in the warehouse. While still working for that same company, Harwood began driving trucks at age 21. In 1994, at age 26, Harwood switched to a new company to work as an over-the-road trucker. Around 6 or 7 years later, after completing a trade school course in locksmithing, Harwood found a job in another company as a locksmith.

He loved his locksmithing job more than any of the others he ever had. Over the phone, he explained that he has a very mechanical mind and that locks interest him for that reason. He stayed on at his locksmithing job for 15 years. Over that time, his body slowly deteriorated. Around March of 2013, Harwood was first diagnosed with a number of physical ailments and prescribed pain medication, physical therapy, and classes in pain management. According to Harwood, he has degenerative discs in his lower back and nerve damage in his legs. The resulting pain made it harder and harder for him to keep up at work and it became increasingly clear that it was just a matter of time before he wouldn’t be able to work at all.

Despite the pain, Harwood stuck it out at his job for another couple of years. Around the middle of 2014, he could no longer really perform his job, and so he made his first application for disability insurance. His employer, whom Harwood describes as very sympathetic and supportive, gave him a part-time office job mostly just to keep him employed and provide him with some income until he could receive benefits. He was making $12 an hour. Although he could not confirm this, one has to imagine that this friendly gesture from his employer actually made it harder for him to receive disability benefits given the way eligibility is determined. In any case, Harwood’s application was denied in late 2014 and his appeal of that denial was dismissed in May of 2015.

In August of 2015, after 31 years in the labor force and 15 years at his current job, Harwood’s employer finally let him go. On that same day, Harwood filed a new disability insurance application and that application is still pending.

In our conversation, Harwood intimated that his whole life has been marred by various economic setbacks. For instance, in 2005, he and his wife bought a modest condo for them and their daughter, who was 13 years old at the time. This was the first property he had ever bought and he feels like he was duped into signing a very unfavorable variable-rate loan. In 2008, when the economic crisis hit, he lost his condo along with so many millions of others. All together, that misadventure drained his family of as much as $30,000 of wealth.

These days, when he’s not bedridden with pain, he’s mainly preparing to move while continuing his fight with the Social Security Administration. His $875 rent is paid up until February 1st but he does not have the means to pay any further. His landlord, who Harwood also describes as sympathetic to his plight, has given him until February 11th to vacate the unit. The few bonus days were extended to allow Harwood to attend a scheduled doctor appointment before he leaves the state to live with his wife’s parents in Arizona. Harwood expressed embarrassment about having to move like this, and also expressed fear that, by moving to a new state, he would lose Medicaid eligibility and not be able to regain it, a fate that would leave him without medicine and in excruciating pain.

Near the end of our conversation, I asked Harwood about his politics, since they make an appearance in his YouTube videos. He explained that he is an independent but that he leans conservative. When asked what his main issues are, he talked at length about the bank bailout. In his view, the bailout was an incredible mistake. The money that went to the banks should have been given out to the people more generally, who then could have used it to pay off their loans (and thus save the banks) and to pump up demand more generally. He explained further that the bank bailout is just one part of a broader problem with the way the government spends money. Specifically, he thinks it spends too much money on foreign aid, refugees, and immigrants, when it should be spending it on struggling veterans, seniors, needy children, and those who cannot work. He also confirmed that he is, at least in some respects, a social conservative and that he believes abortion is murder. In the 2016 campaign, he says he wants a Trump and Cruz ticket and he doesn’t care who leads it.

Altogether, Harwood struck me as a basically kind and decent man. He’s been economically wrecked by so many of the trends that have hit working-class people in the country over the last few decades. He lost his home in the Great Recession. He has had lower-paying work for much of his life. And now he has a work-limiting disability that may soon cause him to become, in effect, homeless. He has experienced his latest setback as an abandonment of him by society and government institutions: he contributed in the labor force for 31 years and yet he can’t get the social benefits he is justly owed.

His concern about foreign aid, immigrants, and refugees, though misguided in my opinion, has a very clear connection to his economic situation. Put bluntly, he wonders why his country can somehow help these people while he drowns. In the grand scheme of things, the reality is that the US does not spend that much of its GDP on foreign aid, refugees, and immigrants. The reason there are so many poor veterans, elderly, children, and disabled (the four populations Harwood kept bringing up) is not because the government doesn’t have the means to help these groups. It just chooses not to for various ideological reasons. This is something I know because I spend most of my waking hours studying the shape of government spending and the US welfare state. But you could certainly see how someone like Eric Harwood might think otherwise.

Please, if you can, donate to Eric’s GoFundMe.